One of the bleakest bits of news this week was that years of hard-won educational gains achieved in closing the attainment gap have been blown away by the coronavirus crisis.
This was contained in a report on BBC's Newsnight on Tuesday, which said that analysis by the Education Endowment Foundation has found that school closures will result in the socioeconomic gap for attainment at least reversing the progress of the past 10 years.
Professor Becky Francis, chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, told Newsnight: “The gap has closed over the 10-year period by around 10 percentage points. Unfortunately, our initial analysis suggests that that gap will be at least entirely reversed.”
Not only is that a disaster for the young people concerned but it also shows the fragility of progress on this front, and how we must do things differently post-crisis to embed social equity much more deeply.
It is not surprising then that various commentators are suggesting how we can help children to catch up for lost time.
Coronavirus and the disadvantage gap
Former Ofsted boss Sir Michael Wilshaw surfaced on the same programme to suggest “bringing in schools over weekend periods, holiday periods or extending the school day”. Otherwise, he could see “no alternative but to repeat a year for some of our children”.
At the weekend, Commons Education Select Committee chair Robert Halfon had called for a volunteer "army" consisting of retired teachers and university graduates to be set up to support disadvantaged pupils in schools when the lockdown ends.
And earlier in April, children’s commissioner Anne Longfield suggested schools should consider opening “in some form” over the six-week summer holidays to help children catch up.
All of these interventions undoubtedly spring from the best of motives, and it is heartening to see the passion that exists over this subject. However, extra layers of complexity are really not the answer, given that what we actually need to do is the exact opposite and lighten the load of schools and colleges.
Opening up schools for weekends, evenings and holiday periods is not only a logistical headache but assumes that children will want to attend this provision. Some might, but probably not many of those we most want to focus on.
The idea that the only alternative is to repeat the year is a complete non-starter and utterly impractical.
And that volunteer "army" of retired teachers and university graduates entails a logistical exercise of immense proportions in order to give pupils access to a group of teachers who don’t know them, and graduates who have no experience of teaching.
Although – to give credit where it’s due – another idea from Mr Halfon for a catch-up premium for vulnerable and disadvantaged pupils really could help, as long as headteachers are free to decide how it is best spent.
That aside, when schools and colleges reopen, what we need them to do is what only they can do – provide their pupils with tailored support based on teachers’ knowledge of their learning needs.
It isn’t about grand gestures, or an army of well-meaning volunteers who have to be managed by over-worked headteachers. It is about the forensic business of working out how much learning is lost, what support is required, and how it can be delivered.
That won’t be the same in the case of every child. In fact, far from it.
Remote learning will have worked better for some children than for others. Schools and colleges will be presented with young people who are at significantly different points. The first job will be to map where they are now, and what they need.
And this won’t, of course, just be in academic terms. Some of these young people are going to need emotional and mental health support, even more urgently than catch-up programmes. Let’s face the grim truth. Some of them will have lost family members during the coronavirus crisis. Others will have been traumatised by the experience of relatives being seriously ill.
Many will have lost the habit of learning, and the structures of the school day, and they will require patience, understanding and work to resocialise them into school life.
This is going to be a job for experts – and those experts are the people who already work in our schools and colleges. There may be a role for volunteers to help out in some form or other at some point. I don’t know what that might look like at the moment, but nor am I discounting it.
But the immediate priority must be to let schools and colleges do their job.
In fact, this was put very well by current Ofsted boss Amanda Spielman, on the same Newsnight programme.
She said: “The message I would give is about keeping it as simple as possible, not layering on too many additional complexities for schools, because they are going to have a lot to deal with already.
“It seems likely that school return will have to be staggered, for example, because of social distancing expectations, and nobody yet knows quite how that will translate in a school context, especially with younger children.
“So we really, really need to make sure that we don’t make schools’ jobs impossibly complicated. They have got to have a clear brief and they have got to have the space in which to do what they do well.”
Exactly that. Which leads me to write a sentence I haven’t written before. Three cheers for the chief inspector.
When some kind of normality begins to return, let’s let the teachers teach.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets @RealGeoffBarton